Wednesday 17 January 2018

'I am perfectly clear in my mind and in my conscience'

Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny sat down with Brendan O'Connor to give his only print interview about the Marriage Equality Referendum

Brendan O'Connor: Taoiseach, do you reckon the referendum is home and dry at this point or would there still be a worry that the No campaign has found its voice and is gaining momentum?

Enda Kenny: No, I don't reckon it's home and dry. I'm actually never in any doubt about these things. They can never be carried unless the people take the time to get a ballot paper and cast their vote. If they haven't the interest or the motivation to actually go out into a polling station, these things don't happen.

BOC: Do you worry that people are still a bit confused at this late stage?

Straight From the heart: Brendan O’Connor and Enda Kenny share a laugh during their meeting in the Taoiseach’s office. Photo by David Conachy.
Straight From the heart: Brendan O’Connor and Enda Kenny share a laugh during their meeting in the Taoiseach’s office. Photo by David Conachy.

EK: That's why I think it's absolutely fundamental that they understand the question they are being asked - "Are you prepared to give your approval and your authority for our Constitution to have an additional section put in to allow for civil marriage to take place between two people irrespective of their sexual orientation?"

Regarding the issues of adoption or fostering or religious ceremonies, or services or issues about children - these are not the questions that people are being asked. And I'll tell you, Brendan, the more I've seen of this - I would say in the last three months, the number of people who have come to me themselves and said: "I know you for many years, I want you to understand that I'm a gay person", man or woman, "and I want to thank you that we have the opportunity to have a vote on this." So for me, personally, it's been a journey. Twenty-five years ago, I wouldn't have had the sort of level of understanding of the extent of the involvement in our community of people who are gay.

I mean, look at somebody who was born in the 1950s in the west of Ireland. You heard all of the sort of comments and the rudeness and all of that, but the journey from, let's say, Young Fine Gael back in the early 1980s about the abolition of illegitimacy, Maire Geoghegan Quinn's decriminalisation of homosexuality, right up to the civil partnership and now the question of equality of marriage. That's the political end of it. But for me, it's meeting people in ordinary jobs, in ordinary families, in ordinary sectors of life that makes you think, well, what's the problem here? Is there a problem? If it is about giving equality to citizens, that's the evolution of my job.

BOC: You're coming, Taoiseach, from a fairly staunchly Catholic starting point. A lot of people out there are struggling because they are good Catholics and the Church is telling them one thing and possibly most other people are telling them another thing. Can you identify with that struggle?

EK: You're right, I was married in the Catholic Church; I am very proud of that. I went to the religious ceremony and signed the register, which is the civil part of the marriage. Now we have so much discrimination in this world, colour, race, creed, all of these things and there is an issue here that the right of marriage in the civil law is not extended to same-sex couples. That is the question people will be asked.

When I was leader after 2002, I had a number of people working for the party who I knew, or it was brought to my attention, that they were gay people. That didn't impact on me at all - working with me, working with the party, working with politics.

When Deputy Jerry Buttimer rang me, whom I know for many many years, I did not know he was a gay person. And he came over here and said: "I need to see you for a few minutes", sitting on that chair that you are sitting on and he said: "I am very, very nervous", and he said: "I have to tell you that I am a gay person", and I said: "Shure Jerry, that is not a problem. I know your work, what your orientation is is not my business and we still love you anyway, Jerry."

So, so many people who work in very ordinary jobs in very ordinary families are involved in this... If somebody says: "I am a gay person and I want to get married" - is their own family going to deny them that? Are our own fellow citizens going to deny them that?

I am perfectly clear in my mind and in my conscience in respect of freedom of religious principles and beliefs. This is only about the civil law and the civil law applies if you want to get married in a Catholic Church - you have to sign the register at the end of it.

If the Church doesn't wish to pursue that, do that end of it, then that's the Church's right, absolutely, or any other church. A gay couple can have the opportunity if they wish to be married with a religious ceremony but the signing of the civil register is the civil contract between two people. That contract cannot be extended at the moment to two people of the same sex.

Now, I'll tell you a story because I think it is a very important story. A woman came to me last weekend whom I know, and her husband and family, and she said: "A few years back one of our four children came to me and said: 'I am a gay person,'" and she said: "I never knew anything about this, nor did my family", and she said: "I cried for six months, and during that time I began to reflect on who this child was, is; this is my son, I conceived him with my husband, one of our children. Now I brought him into the world not to be any particular kind of person, but a child of our family who I love and we love", and she said: "I have grown to an understanding that this is his personality, that is who he is and I love him the same as our other children and am I to say to him that if, in time, he wants to have a relationship with another man and get married to him, that I should not say that I am sorry but I am going to deny you that opportunity."

Are we as Irish citizens not sufficiently interested to say to [gay people]: "I believe you have the right to live your life, happy in whatever relationship you have and if you want to go through a marriage contract, I certainly approve of that"?

BOC: Can you understand why people might be thinking of voting No?

EK: I can, because on social issues you are going to have a fear of doing the right thing, but it is nothing to be afraid of because you have lots of relationships where people live together, some where they are raising children, either from a previous relationship or whatever; but that is the way that it is.

The world has changed utterly. There was a time when you couldn't marry a Protestant. There was a time when you got married that the women had to give up their job in the public service and when they got married they were owned by their husbands. That's all changed."

BOC: Do you think we will look back on gay marriage not being allowed as being as antiquated and as appalling as those things seem to us now?

EK: Yes, the world has moved on completely. If the civil contract of marriage is about two people saying, "we have a love for each other I'd like to spend my time living with you and we sign a contract," why should we say in 2015 that we deny that opportunity to men or women who want to do that? Take the example of the woman's son who said to her: "I am a gay person... brought into the world by you. I have evolved into the personality that I am and that is the determination of my personality."

So when I see them around the country... I was down in the Digital Hub the other day to meet a hi-tech group of about 200 - and these are people who have had a weight on their shoulders as they go to work each day... and to be happy in their work and have that pressure relieved - they want the adventure of life.

BOC: So you believe this is more than about letting gay people get married, that this is about them feeling accepted?

EK: It is about equality. How can a mother or father or a family say, "you are not acceptable". You got the story of the secretary general of our own party, who rang me the night before, and said: "I want to tell you something." "What's that, Tom?" "One of our children is a gay person." And I read the story in the paper the following day and I thought it is remarkable how ordinary the response was [in the family] that the young man's two brothers said, "so what" and the sister went in to dry her hair... the love of a family is as strong as ever.

BOC: And yet we have heard a lot of stories throughout this campaign of terrible mental anguish.

EK: I've heard those stories of course, and it is an enormous pressure on them. There is a reservoir of emotion in there that needs to be lanced and there is a terribly strong psychological relief when people can say openly in Irish society, "I am a gay person, I am entitled to do my job without any kind of discrimination or pressure on me to do that" and when you talk to them and watch them and engage with them, it is a very powerful force and it can only be relived by the people voting in sufficient numbers to say I am going to be for gay marriage.

BOC: Are you worried about the turnout?

EK: Referenda always have a problem of low turnouts, but this has been a referendum that in many ways is so different. Senators and TDs are reporting back and saying: "We are knocking on doors with young people from the equality movement, who now see the value of politics, that you can convince people about an issue. And the funny thing has been that all across the country other issues of politics, water, health, justice, roads, are never raised."

BOC: You seem to be saying that if the Church doesn't want to go along with it, if they don't want to be involved in civil marriage after this, so be it.

EK: That is a decision for the Church and they are perfectly entitled to make that decision. There is freedom of religious expression, freedom of religious belief enshrined in Article 39 of the Constitution. I respect that completely. As a Catholic it is not something that bothers me at all. The Church is perfectly entitled to say, "this is our belief, this is our doctrine, this is our philosophy, this is our teaching."

And if the Church decides that the priest should not be a solemniser in conducting the supervision of the civil contract being signed, that is the Church's right. It would mean that if people wished to get married in a Catholic church and have a Catholic church ceremony, they would then go to a civil office to sign the civil marriage act. We were at a wedding lately and one of the managers said of the last 35 weddings, just five were church weddings.

BOC: Some people would say that, as a person who is regarded as a good Catholic, you have had more than a few flashpoints with the Catholic Church, and without seeming to have set out on a mission, you have done a lot to separate Church and State. Could this be another huge wedge between Church and State?

EK: Yes. I just felt the opportunity to hold this office is rare indeed, and I felt there was a range of issues that was never dealt with, and needed to be dealt with. But personally, as a citizen, my relationship with the Church is far healthier and stronger than ever before. I think there is an acceptance of policies that I would raise as a citizen and deal with as a politician.

BOC: Are we going to have a situation where a lot of people like you, good Catholics possibly and, if you don't mind me saying this, of a certain age, who have never probably openly defied the Church or the teachings of the Church before in their lives, are on this occasion, on a mass scale, not going to listen to the bishops?

EK: Well, you see, I was reared in the West of Ireland in the 1950s and you're right. I remember the sodalities in the Church - the left and right - and all of those things that could happen. But you see in respect of contraception and divorce, the teaching of the Church was very clear and yet the Catholic population of this country took a very different view. The argument was put up that marriage would decline because of divorce, but the marriage numbers have actually increased.

BOC: Will this be the most important part of your legacy?

EK: How do you rate these things? I had the privilege of coming in here first to fix the country's finances and get the country back working. That took up so much time. These are other social issues that are of equal importance, but they're in a different place and they require a far different attention... I'm not really interested in legacies at all, I'm interested in results for the country.

BOC: Do you worry that this referendum has been a bit divisive with the sides polarised, some saying they feel bullied and made to feel ashamed of their opinions?

EK: I've been very careful in all this to say it's a referendum. We're in a democracy. Everybody is entitled to their view but it's important to focus on the central question... I just cannot understand how, if you look at the country from [the point of view] above all of those families, when it comes to light as it surely will to people all over the country when their children and family members and extended family members say, "I've grown to a point where I consider I believe I am, I know I'm a gay person and I've formed a relationship and I want to get married."

Would a family say: "When I had the chance to do this, I didn't take it; my own flesh and blood, my own kith and kin should be happy in their lives with that person." So there's nothing to be afraid of here, nothing to be worried about, because nothing has changed in regard to all of the ceremonies and all of the issues... From my point of view I see this as a strengthening of the institution, a strengthening of marriage because you're making it more available to others.

BOC: Am I right in thinking that at the time of Civil Partnership, you, at that point, would not have seen the need to extend it to marriage.

EK: Yes. I was reticent about it, but as I said, since then I met so many people who were very happy to see civil partnership as a road to a conclusion of having a marriage rite in the civil law. My view of them now, what they do, the way they interact, is it any business of mine that they love and honour who they do? It's no business of mine.

My concern would be that the older generation, from 45 upwards, might say: "Well I've lived my life, I've been involved in a relationship where I'm married or not, I've children or not or whatever." Some of those - we saw the evidence of some former representatives speaking very passionately - spent lost years when they weren't able to say: "I'm a gay person."

BOC: You're obviously thinking about Pat Carey. It was terribly sad to hear him talk about it.

EK: Absolutely. A lovely man, Pat Carey

BOC: It almost felt like a waste of life.

EK: Yes.

BOC: He's found happiness now which is great.

EK: Yes, and the relief of that when he can walk down the street and say: "So what! I'm a gay person and part of our citizenry here, I made my contribution for our country and obviously Jerry Buttimer, Leo Varadkar, Pat Carey, all people from different sectors, sports people, and others who say, "look I just want to lead my life and do my thing, so will you give me the approval to say I can do this". We're great people for helping others - someone knocks on your door saying: "Brendan, I'm in trouble, I've got a flat tyre", we all help each other. I think if people think of it in that way, think of extended families, they will say, "why not?"

This is the issue for the next number of days that people will reflect on the power that they have to give, or the power that they have to refuse, and whether or not it will be a huge disappointment to our people if they take the latter course. To those members who are of the gay community and their extended families it will be a huge letdown, and as time moves on, younger people coming through may well decide to tell Daddy and Mammy: "I'm a gay person, you had a chance to give me freedom in terms of civil marriage and you didn't do it." It's an opportunity that won't come again. So I say to people, come on, make your mark.

Sunday Independent

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